Case management architecture isn’t rocket science. In fact, experts say, it’s actually more of an art—a dance involving business and technology priorities choreographed carefully over time.

Building an architecture for dynamic case management (DCM) involves the same principles as those used in other contemporary IT projects—namely, an emphasis on loose coupling and a clear separation of concerns, says Nathaniel Palmer, executive director of the Workflow Management Coalition, an industry group that focuses on BPM, workflow and related issues.

In a DCM architecture, Palmer says, the best-of-breed components are “doing their own thing.” Rather than using business rules in the user interface layer, you’ll be defining business rules in a business rules engine—and not defining business processes where you shouldn’t be (for example, in a document-processing system).

SINGLE STANDARD
According to Keith D. Swenson, co-author of "Mastering the Unpredictable:" How Adaptive Case Management Will Revolutionize the Way That Knowledge Workers Get Things Done” (Meghan-Kiffer Press, 2010), DCM architectures should include a set of protocols. Swenson always suggests considering WOpenIDO, a single sign-on open standard that describes a decentralized way for authenticating users.

While Swenson is enthusiastic about that standard, he acknowledges that in the industry aren’t happy with the lack of support available for it. Meanwhile, he says, OAuth, SSL and HTTPS can also be important to building a DCM architecture.

“You need to think in terms of infrastructure and the fact that everyone will have their own favorite case management system,” he says. As a result, you’ll eventually need protocols to help with exchanging cases between systems. But he adds: “That is still very futuristic.”

Also important: activity streams, an idea borrowed from the social media world, or some kind of event sequence. Such streams “should be optimized to access case folders,” says Swenson. Also, he says, you may want to “publish” within a DCM context through an RSS type of scheme.

Activity streams offer some standardization, allowing social tools to pull in information from various sources, Swenson says. “An activity stream doesn’t guarantee that you will have the information you need to do processing, but you can use activity streams to produce processes,” he says.

BUILD BRIDGES
Another consideration is the need to provide for cross-enterprise processes. That area is becoming more important because companies want to bring in outside expertise, which may require using a bridge from one organization to the other.

“To use a police-detective example, if [a detective] is using a local case management system and sees an issue that could use additional help from the FBI, you want those FBI experts to be able to access the system and vice versa,” says Swenson. In fact, he says, one of the tragedies of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks was that the key agencies involved weren’t connected at the time and thus couldn’t share information across their case processes.

Echoing Swenson and Palmer, Dave Duggal says that DCM isn’t a standard. “Therefore, there is no common architectural approach to it,” says Duggal, founder of Consilience International LLC, which specializes in real-time application integration. “So we are talking about a movement, a collection of vendors, in which people share certain thinking about process technologies for the 21st century.”

AN EMERGING MOVEMENT
Implementation of a DCM architecture can occur in many ways, he says. “This is still an emerging movement and there are many different DCM vendors doing these things with a variety of approaches,” he says.

However, Duggal says all of them are cognizant of “the BPM marketing machine” and share some foundational beliefs that are at odds with that established sector. “The major one is that processes need to be more responsive in the 21st century,” he says.

In other words, people know about the availability of collaboration tools and are starting to view contemporary enterprise software as rigid and non-responsive. Add to that perception the pressures from globalization and increased competition and “you quickly realize enterprises need to be more adaptive,” he says.

CREATE AUTONOMY
The closest thing to a general solution, in Duggal’s view, is to increase the autonomy of workers, especially those with decision-making responsibilities.

To accomplish that, organizations must first accept that the real shift from depending on a flow chart to depending on a DCM tool is “mostly philosophical,” Duggal says.

“Do you value structure, order, and consistency über alles? Are there things you absolutely must have?” he asks. All those traditional pieces and parts tend to be, effectively, static, he says. They don’t change a lot and aren’t responsive. “Of course, in biology, static equates with dying,” he observes. “In the real world, businesses must respond to an environment they don’t control. You can’t confront dynamic environments with static software.”

That implies that, because you value goals and objectives and effectiveness more than standardization, you must give up some standardization and consistency to build something dynamic. “We have all experienced situations where you run into a static process that doesn’t meet your needs and you immediately think, ‘It’s bureaucracy. They aren’t listening to me,’” Duggal says.

FOCUS ON FLEXIBILITY
When people are working from fixed lists of choices, they are, in effect, automatons, Duggal says: “They are no more powerful than what you get punching a keypad button.” Becoming dynamic doesn’t mean that you give up on compliance or reporting or the controls that are necessary to business, but those elements must be flexible where they can be flexible (especially for people who have authority), dynamic where they can be, and limiting where there’s a need to lock things down.

“Historically, it has been either/or. You are either ad hoc or rigid,” Duggal says. “Dynamic case management people see that as a false binary. Work isn’t black or white. Sometimes there is a need for more latitude than at other times.”

Conceptually, then, DCM is a system that supports that kind of ability to adapt. But Duggal emphasizes that that view doesn’t mean that everything changes all the time. It doesn’t lead to anarchy or mean that everything is constantly in flux.

However, if you can’t make provisions for people to adapt within your architecture, then, by definition, you aren’t adaptive. “The idea is to support that continuum of work and to provide what we call `flexible as possible, procedural as necessary,’” he says.

READER FEEDBACK: Have you successfully implemented a case management architecture? Congratulations! What tips, lessons learned or best practices can you share? Let ebizQ's staff know, and we'll keep your advice in mind as we plan future content. Please e-mail Site Editor Anne Stuart at editor@ebizq.net.



About the Author

Alan Earls, a journalist who specializes in writing about technology and business, is based in the Boston area.

More by Alan Earls, ebizQ Contributor

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